It Is Not Time to Bomb North Korea
There’s no reason to start a devastating war when nonmilitary options are working.
Edward Luttwak, judging from his recent article in Foreign Policy, thinks a war between two nuclear-armed states is a good idea. He’s wrong. In fact, nothing could be more ruinous to U.S. interests or more dangerous to America’s friends than attacking North Korea.
You don’t have to take our word for it. When we wrote to the Defense Department this fall to inquire about the risks that a military assault on North Korea would pose, they told us that a ground invasion would be necessary to destroy North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s nuclear sites and noted that the Seoul metropolitan area’s 25 million inhabitants were well within range of North Korean artillery, rockets, and ballistic missiles. As if that weren’t dire enough, the U.S. Congressional Research Service recently estimated that 300,000 people would be killed in the first few days of fighting.
Any attempt to destroy that arsenal would present him with a classic “use it or lose it” scenario, likely precipitating a nuclear exchange. Alternatively, Kim could choose to respond conventionally with thousands of rockets and artillery pieces, killing tens or hundreds of thousands of U.S., Japanese, and South Korean civilians and military personnel. In either scenario, we lose even if we “win” in a strictly military sense.
As with all nuclear deterrence campaigns, the only way to truly win is not to play.
Luttwak mentions hardening subway stations as a way to protect Seoul’s citizens. Never mind that no amount of hardening could prevent the destruction of the city. Never mind that South Koreans would be joined in those makeshift shelters by thousands of American and third-country nationals living in Seoul. Never mind that the South would be under great pressure to escalate in the first hours of a conventional exchange.
Moreover, any escalation could — and probably would — draw a Chinese response. Peace on the Korean Peninsula and preserving a buffer between itself and a core U.S. ally remain paramount to the Chinese government, and we would be unwise to bet against China enforcing those interests.
Instead of contemplating military strikes, we should recognize that nonmilitary options for North Korea are real and working. South Korea has already broken with President Donald Trump’s dangerous policy in the interest of negotiations over the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics. This de-escalatory route should be pursued to the fullest extent possible.
Moving forward, we should support and empower the savvy U.S. foreign service officers and civil servants who are working to strangle the Kim regime’s lifelines of money, oil, and contraband. We should name and shame Chinese banks that launder money for North Korean elites, designate them as in violation of U.S. sanctions, and cut them off from the global financial system. And we should continue working to split North Korea from a China that increasingly sees the Kim regime as damaging to its ambitions.
Most importantly, we should reinforce the defenses of our Asian allies as we work to build a unified global front against Kim’s regime. Sanctions are effective only to the extent that they are enforced, and this kind of coordinated international action requires real diplomatic acumen — something the Trump administration has yet to demonstrate.
The bottom line is that hundreds of thousands of people will die within days of a U.S. attack on North Korea and millions more could perish in the war that will inevitably follow. President Trump owes it to our allies in the region and our troops on the ground to adopt a smarter, more cautious approach.